Interview with Ashok Bhattacharya, West Bengal Minister for Municipal Affairs and Urban Development.
Ashok Bhattacharya, West Bengal Minister for Municipal Affairs and Urban Development, and Town and Country Planning since 1996, is also the Chairman of the Siliguri Jalpaiguri Development Authority (SJDA). From 1987 to 1991 he was the Chairman of the Siliguri Municipality. In 1991, he was elected to the State Assembly from his home constituency in Siliguri and he assumed charge as Minister of State for Municipal Affairs. Bhattacharya spoke to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay about of the activities of SJDA and its future plans. Excerpts:
The location of Jalpaiguri and Siliguri is of great strategic importance. What kind of work is the Siliguri Jalpaiguri Development Authority engaged in?
The SJDA's area of operation is spread over 1,400 sq km of the region, including the two cities of Siliguri and Jalpaiguri. The importance of this region, as you have rightly said, cannot be overstated. The Bangladesh border is just about 10 km away, Nepal 20 km, Bhutan 50 km and China around 150 km. The main city under the SJDA is Siliguri, which is also the gateway to the entire northeastern region. And the way this region is expanding it will soon be the second gateway to Southeast Asia.
At one time tea, timber, tobacco and tourism were the main industries here. Now, after Kolkata, this is the place where the maximum urbanisation is taking place. The main development work here is being done by the SJDA, of course with the help of the local municipality and the panchayat. Keeping the growth potential of Siliguri in mind, first a master plan was drafted. Later it was developed into a perspective plan - `Siliguri-Jalpaiguri 2025'.
It has been seen that with rapid urbanisation in the region, the non-agricultural sector is growing more than the agricultural sector. The main growth is in the service sector, such as financial institutes, transport, small-scale industries, and so on. As a result, a large number of people are having more purchasing power; and like all growing metropolises, there is a lot of influx of people from other States and bordering countries. Soon this will be the second metropolis in the eastern region. So our job is cut out. We have set up a transport nagar and a truck terminal; we have constructed two bypasses in Siliguri and one in Jalpaiguri; the third Mahananda bridge has been set up; two satellite towns, one each in Jalpaiguri and Siliguri... and numerous bridges and housing projects.What is the SJDA's main focus now?
With all this development taking place, the expectations and the needs of the people are increasing. We are now focussing on infrastructure development in a manner that around it economic activities will also increase. We want more private investors and business houses coming into the region. The areas we have identified for private investments are infrastructure, housing, transport, tourism and agro-based industries. ITC and the Taj Group have already acquired land here. There is also a lot of potential for herbal-based industries, and we are trying to find a way of encouraging investments in this field.
With the opening of the Nathu La, Siliguri-Jalpaiguri will be a hub of economic activity. Do you think you have the necessary infrastructure to handle it?
Once the Nathu La is opened, we will have a lot to gain. The region will serve as a sort of dry port and also export of commodity goods to China will be greatly facilitated. Tourism and related industries are bound to thrive. We have identified areas of development for this purpose and have submitted our plan to the Planning Commission.
We are also planning to open a second route to Bangladesh through Phulbari. Moreover, once the east-west corridor is developed from Siliguri through Manipur and Myanmar up to Thailand, the importance of Siliguri as a commercial centre will increase even more. Siliguri and Jalpaiguri by themselves will not be able to handle so much load, so we are looking at an all-round development of the region, not just the urban centres. Our main thrust is on increasing the economic activities in the region. We are also trying to make Bagdogra an international airport.
The incentives given to the northeastern States should also be extended to north Bengal, particularly in the areas of sales and income tax, excise duty and electricity. If these incentives are given to us, investors will be falling over each other to come here. Moreover, certain concessions and benefits are given to regions identified as `no-industry zones'. We want these benefits to be extended to Darjeeling. Thirdly, we want to boost the tea industry, which is the backbone of north Bengal. The package promised to the tea industry by the Centre should be implemented as soon as possible, and something should be done about patenting Darjeeling Tea. What we need is more aggressive campaigning to sell Indian tea to the foreign market. It is an undeniable fact that the quality of Indian tea, particularly Darjeeling tea, is far superior to Kenyan or Sri Lankan tea.
North Bengal itself has immense tourist potential. Why is that not being optimally tapped?
That is very true. The kind of scenic beauty we have in north Bengal - with all the tea gardens and forests - cannot be found anywhere else in the country. So what we are doing now is focussing on tea-garden-based tourism. We have prepared a report on how to go about promoting this and have submitted it to the Chief Minister. Another thing that should be promoted is forest tourism. But we need proper infrastructure first and we are working on developing that. Recently, I made a trip to Jayanti. The place is unimaginably beautiful, but the road conditions are so bad that a tourist will not want to go down that route again. I also have to admit that we have been found wanting in aggressive promotion of the region as a tourist destination. The SJDA is preparing a separate plan on tourism alone. If the tourism industry takes off here, the rewards will be great, especially when you consider the kind of employment that can be generated.